Business is so good these days at the Dane County Regional Airport that officials are planning a $30 million expansion of parking facilities that will add three levels and 1,600 more covered spaces to the ramp.
Due for completion in late 2014, the ramp addition will bring the number of covered parking spaces to nearly 4,700. The airport also has another 1,550 surface spots.
Year-to-date passenger traffic at the Dane County Regional Airport is up 4.1 percent. That comes on top of a 6.7 percent increase last year to over 810,000 passengers, the most passengers since a record 847,341 flew out of Madison in 2004 before the recession started cutting into travel numbers.
Dane County Executive Joe Parisi, who included the parking ramp expansion in his 2014 county budget, says the need for more airport spaces is being driven in part by the continued expansion of Epic Systems in Verona.
Approaching 7,000 employees, the electronic medical records company is now the area’s largest private-sector employer. It’s also the largest single source of airport passengers for the Dane County Regional Airport, as Epic employees travel frequently to install and maintain systems that now serve half the patients in the U.S.
“Approximately 1,200 Epic staff fly out of Madison every week,” says Epic spokeswoman Barb Hernandez. “This doesn't count customers, consultants or vendors.”
Considering the airport averaged about 16,000 departures weekly last year, Epic’s impact is not to be dismissed. Monday afternoon — the typical departure time for staff traveling out of town — is called "Epic Monday" by many airport employees.
And Epic is showing no signs of slowing its growth. The company counts about 6,800 employees, up from 6,200 employees at year-end 2012.
“We're anticipating about the same growth rate in 2014 as we had this year,” says Hernandez.
Still, the expansion at the airport isn’t just about Epic Systems, says airport manager Brad Livingston.
Livingston says a combination of an improving local economy coupled with a reduction in the number of passenger seats at other airports in Wisconsin is driving more customers through Madison.
Ongoing consolidation within the airline industry, Livingston says, has led to a reduced number of passenger seats being offered at competing airports like Milwaukee, La Crosse or Central Wisconsin (located in Mosinee, near Stevens Point and Wausau). Fewer seats mean fewer low-cost fares and fewer travelers willing to drive 75 minutes or longer for a bargain flight.
“Sure, the technology sector has helped, but we’ve also recovered some of the traffic that has been leaking to other markets,” says Livingston.
Traffic through General Mitchell International in Milwaukee, for example, is down 17 percent so far in 2012 compared to 2013. Officials there are hoping that new owners of Frontier Airlines will add more Milwaukee flights and lure more passengers who might be flying out of Chicago.
In addition to a stronger economy and airline cutbacks, Livingston credits strong numbers in Madison to several service expansions that include direct flights to New York-LaGuardia; Cincinnati; Denver; Orlando, Fla.; Washington, D.C. , Dallas/Fort Worth and Salt Lake City.
While other airports have been losing flights, Livingston notes that available seats at the DCRA have increased to 96,000 monthly as of October, up nearly 10 percent over 2012 levels. Airlines generally look for a load factor of 80 percent or higher.
On that measure, DCRA has been outperforming the rest of the nation. Load factors for small hub airports in other markets are down about 2 percent but are up nearly 4 percent in Madison, says Livingston.